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Inside the President’s Studio – Amy Goldenberg

(click to listen)

Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month the studio features  Amy Goldenberg, Managing Editor of Anthropology News.

(1)    What are you most passionate about–in work? In life?

I feel very strongly about trying to achieve work-life balance, although it usually feels more like a juggling act.

(2) How did you get interested in folklore? Do you remember exactly when and where you were when that happened or at least when you decided to pursue a doctorate in it?

By the time I started college, I was very interested in language and culture, especially Russian. I took a lot of ballet growing up and it was obvious to me that all the best dancers in the US had defected from the Soviet Union. At the same time, in the early ‘80s, a lot of my classmates at school would echo whatever Soviet stereotypes were popular then and talk about “evil commies.” But I was intrigued by the USSR. I was convinced there was something interesting going on over there because they produced the world’s best dancers. Of course, it was also obvious that negative stuff was happening too, since so many of them had in fact defected.

So I signed up to study Russian as soon as I could. The department also offered a series of Russian folklore classes. I didn’t really know what it was, but the course descriptions spoke directly to my interest in culture. I signed up and loved the class. Plus the teacher was inspirational. So I signed up for the next one. One afternoon after that class, something clicked and it seemed everything in the world could be explained through folklore. Then I took some classes with another folklorist who was in the anthropology and English departments. I found out that the subject was fascinating no matter what culture or region we were discussing and I just kept on going with it.
(3) What else were you interested in when you were growing up—-say, when you were 10 or 13 or 15? And what happened to those interests?

At that time I was definitely into ballet. I did it until I was about 15 or 16 when my knees started to wear out.

 (4) You now mostly work for the AAA as Managing Editor of our monthly ANTHROPOLOGY NEWS. How did you end up going from having a scholarly interest in folklore to editing a substantive monthly newsletter for the American Anthropological Association?

Like most graduate students, I had many, many, many jobs throughout school. A lot of them used and developed my editing skills, and a couple gave me design skills. I had also found that I was better at editing than teaching. By the time I was writing my dissertation, I knew academia wasn’t for me, but I had this compulsion to finish. After I did, I continued to work at the university as a writer and editor (that’s when I learned InDesign) while my husband finished his doctorate. After he finished, he got a job out here, so we moved and I started looking for a new job. I was fortunate to get some professional resume help, and that showed me that I actually had a lot of experience in publishing and editing, so I targeted those jobs. When AAA popped up in one of my searches, it really stood out to me because I already knew a little about it. Luckily, at the time they were looking for someone who had my skills, and the folklore background seemed to help.

(5) What did you most like about folkore as a scholarly field when you were pursuing your doctorate, and do you miss it (at least a bit) while working in editing and publishing for the AAA?

The most rewarding part for me was learning new skills to do the research I wanted to do. For my dissertation, the original research plan was to study amber jewelry, so I took a metalsmithing class to develop an eye for evaluating metal work in jewelry. During fieldwork I also spent a lot of time learning how to take photographs in different situations. I enjoy learning new things and being able to get in depth with things like with metalsmithing and photography. Now I don’t have the time to spend a 25 hours a week metalsmithing or 2 days in a museum experimenting with my camera because now my job revolves around AN, and then my job was to do the dissertation. Still, there’s always more to learn and do, it’s just that now it revolves more around technology and the publishing industry.

But I think what I miss most right now is catching up with my friends at the AFS annual meeting. The meeting is usually a few days before AN goes to press, and that’s just not a time I can be away.

(6) What makes you mad?

Jerks.

(7) What makes you laugh?

Babies, toddlers and kids. Everything is new and unique to them, and they always seem to come up with a new take on things that I take for granted or just don’t notice.

(8) There are people with Ph.D.s in anthropology who specialize in folklore and others who study folklore without it being embedded within anthropology programs. Can you usually tell which ones have anthropology degrees and which have other degrees? I know of people in the USA in American Studies and in Folklore who consider themselves folklorists. And I have met colleagues in Europe with degrees in “European Ethnology” who remind me of folklorists I know in the U.S. Are the differences palpable? Is it interesting or surprising to you to note differences or similarities—-in training or even in people’s research, curatorial work, or writing?

I have a hard time telling a person’s home discipline since folklore is incredibly interdisciplinary by nature. Because there are so few dedicated folklore programs, a lot of folklorists are trained or work in other departments, so I think they need to incorporate approaches important to their home department. But I believe a good researcher or scholar will reach to whatever body of knowledge they need for their research, regardless of disciplinary boundaries. This is key to people developing and strengthening their own voice in research, writing, exhibits, and projects.

(9) Do you ever think of yourself these days as a “closet folklorist” working with the 11,000-12,000 anthropologists who are members of AAA, or perhaps as a “closet anthropologist” in the world of folklore?

I’ve joked with some of my friends that I can pass as an anthropologist, but I’m really a folklorist. But the truth is I’m really an editor and facilitator. I’m not doing my own research – and thank goodness, because I’m awful at grant writing. What I’m really here to do is help the people who are doing anthropology talk about issues important to anthropologists and anthropology.

(10) What have been the 1-2 things about anthropologists that have surprised you the most since beginning to work for ANTHROPOLOGY NEWS? Good or bad or perhaps just surprising?

When I started at AN (as the production editor) I noticed how some of the columns or articles criticized AAA. This surprised me because with some other publications I had worked on, such things had to be reworked – we had to be very careful about not offending this important person or that influential office. But in AN, it was not only fine, it was welcome. The important thing was that it was their opinion, and we were there to let them share it. That was both surprising and refreshing.

(11) How and when did you become interested in Poland? I know it was the focus of your dissertation research. Do you have plans to pursue other work on Polish life and culture?

I spent a year in Russia after graduating college. After that year, I spent a few weeks traveling in Eastern Europe, including Poland. Later, when I was thinking about future research and fieldwork, I just kept on thinking about Poland and the possibilities. So I made the plan to revolve around work there.

(12) Have you ever considered moving into politics, foundation work, or advocacy, using your training in folkore? What positions high up in government, in foundations, corporations, educational institutions, or international organizations of various sorts might interest you or colleagues trained in folklore? Any? And are there roles for which folklorists would be especially good?

Of course, I have to start by saying that during Bill Clinton’s presidency, we had a wonderful era of folklorists heading up two big organizations – Bill Ivey was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and Bill Ferris was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. That was inspiring.

But generally, folklorists and anthropologists are incredible assets to any organization because we’re good at looking at a lot of contextual information and know that things are usually more complex than they appear. These skills can be applied to any of those areas you mention, but it really depends on the person’s other interests and strengths. Positions as analysts and program developers would be especially good. Being in DC, I of course think of the government as a potential employer for folklorists and anthropologists – obviously the NEA and NEH, but also the Census Bureau, State Department, Smithsonian, USAID, Department of Education and so on.

(13). What is one thing that only your close friends and family know about you but that you might be willing to share with me and our STUDIO listeners now? I have had guests tell me that chocolate is their secret passion, that they used to want to be a truckdriver, that they are rabid fans of a specific sports team, and more.

I’m a Jane Austen fan. Pride and Prejudice is my favorite, followed by Sense and Sensibility.

(14). What is the one question you wish I had asked here and didn’t?

One Response

  1. Amy-

    I read your interview with great interest because we have a lot in common. I, too, studied dance (though I was older than you when I did it) and have searched for kinesthetic connections throughout my teaching career and in my museum work. I used to teach Myth, Folktale and Science Fiction in the Newton Public Schools in Newton, MA, and became an anthropologist/ethnographer. Being an academic but not being at home in academia is also true of me. I have an intense interest in oral traditions, as you obviously do.

    Good to meet someone so diverse.

    Best,

    Ellen

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